- Literary/Liberal Entanglements: Toward a Literary History for the Twenty-First Century ed. by Corrine Harol and Mark Simpson
The ten essays in Literary/Liberal Entanglements: Toward a Literary History for the Twenty-First Century combine to argue that liberalism means something different to almost everyone. George Bernard Shaw looks and sounds less like a liberal today than he does a cranky authoritarian, which shows how our political conception of the term has evolved. The contributors to this collection approach liberalism from a variety of perspectives. It receives a philosophical treatment in an essay on Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment and the rules that govern our idea of what constitutes play, a postcolonial gloss in a retrospective look at race and botany in Kew Gardens, an academic consideration in a commentary on the state of American universities, and a sociological lens is used to dissect a Patricia Highsmith novel. If liberalism is a malleable concept, then so, it would seem, is the term "literary," which appears twice in the book's title and is stretched in the essays to include Hong Kong cinema and handbills produced by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
There is much to admire in these essays, though an irksome problem recurs. The thematic focus on entanglement seems to encourage analytic complications when many lay readers drawn by the focus on liberalism would undoubtedly prefer clarification and synthesis. The author of "The Wish to Be an Object" introduces the "it-narrative" as a branch of literary analysis that turns physical objects into subjects. A dishtowel, for example, can be treated as though it were a human character. Boundaries are blurred, and the distinction between subject and object becomes one of perspective. The essay argues [End Page 149] that everything is a potential subject and also that we all objectify ourselves and others. The Canadian alternative music group Arcade Fire offered a similarly unhelpful lament in one of their songs: "Infinite content, infinite content, I'm infinitely content." It is not that too much of a good thing is bad, but to say that everything is both good and bad is confusing. The process of limiting, selecting, prioritizing, and (unfortunately, perhaps) labelling content helps us to make meaning.
For better or worse, the absence of a consensus definition of liberalism combines with the eclectic nature of the volume's contents to make a commentary of sorts on the tangled state of liberal thought. Three of the essays should be singled out for particular praise. Andrea Hasenbank's study of the Canadian proletarian movement in the 1930s shows how the liberal establishment silenced working-class literary voices by shifting attention away from political and economic issues. When a particular kind of narrative is given national encouragement, this affects not only which work gets published but also the contents of the narratives produced by future generations. In "The Corporate Reconstruction of American Literary History," Jason Potts argues that America's founding economic principles are at odds with a political model that stresses cultural equality. He uses as evidence essays on American literature that emphasize egalitarianism while "covering over the inegalitarian aspects of American nationalism." Sina Rahmani's "The Problem of Knowledge Production after Empire" draws attention to the problems caused by the liberal thirst for knowledge in combination with British imperial ambition. The assumption that Indians lacked the botanical expertise to manage their own plants in London's Kew Gardens was finally challenged and proven wrong with the hiring of K.N. Kaul in 1939, and Rahmani convincingly shows how liberalism was used to restrict the cultural freedom and development of Indians.
When the cultural and political entanglements are clarified, the essays in this collection work, and the reader's understanding of the relationship between liberal thought and artistic creation is broadened.
School of Commerce, Meiji University